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PANEL DISCUSSION (copy)

Tom Steyer, president NextGen America, during a Tuesday panel discussion at the UW-Madison's Memorial Union.

Liberal billionaire Tom Steyer put his mouth where his money is on Tuesday, speaking on college campuses in Madison and Milwaukee after pledging to spend $2.5 million to organize young voters in Wisconsin. 

Steyer, with a panel of young activists and elected officials, spoke to a small group of progressives ranging in age from a high school senior to a man just a year shy of the Baby Boomer generation at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. 

The former hedge fund executive turned political activist has committed to spending $30 million in 10 states to register and energize progressive, millennial voters — $2.5 million of which will fund efforts in Wisconsin, where Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin and Republican Gov. Scott Walker and House Speaker Paul Ryan face reelection in November.

"Wisconsin ... is a state which is a bellwether for the country," Steyer told the group. "It has been a bellwether for success of the Koch brothers, and hopefully it will be a bellwether for the defeat of the Koch brothers." 

Steyer's NextGen America group is currently active on 14 college campuses throughout the state, including UW-Stevens Point, UW-Stout, Marquette University, Cardinal Stritch University and Carroll University. By the Nov. 6 general election, the group plans to have 53 paid staff working on 35 campuses.

In Wisconsin, the group will focus its efforts on supporting Baldwin and Democratic challengers to Walker and Ryan, including hosting forums to highlight the large field of gubernatorial candidates. 

"Extreme billionaire activist Tom Steyer is here today from California pushing impeachment & the rest of his Far-Left agenda. He's spending tens of millions of dollars already and we're a top target," Walker tweeted Tuesday morning.

In the wake of victories for the left in the state's 10th Senate District and on the state Supreme Court, Walker has taken to conservative radio and TV shows to argue that Democrats are being driven by "anger and hatred." 

Steyer, who in addition to funding organizing efforts through NextGen America and For Our Future, appears frequently in a series of television ads calling for the impeachment of President Donald Trump, told reporters "anger" is the wrong word to use.

"That's just not true," he said. "The fact of the matter is that we are motivated by patriotism and love of the United States and the American people, and that what we’re trying to do is get the country back on a just and prosperous path. There is no anger and there is no hatred involved. In fact, what we’re really trying to do is pull the country together and realize that every American deserves the rights of American citizenship and the dignity of being an American."

Steyer also dismissed comparisons between his own efforts and those of Charles and David Koch, the billionaire brothers who fund a vast network of conservative groups, causes and candidates throughout the country.

"Gosh. Well, it's different in so many ways," Steyer said when asked by a reporter how the two are different. "First of all, I am on campus. When was the last time that the Koch brothers decided to come and explain what they’re doing or explain even what they’re spending or how and why? The fact of the matter is I do believe that money is very corrupting in American politics, so we try to be as transparent as possible. I personally show up."

Steyer also argued that his political efforts do not benefit his personal wealth. 

Newly elected state Rep. Greta Neubauer, D-Racine, told those listening to the panel discussion that the only way to counter the amount of money being spent on the right is for those on the left to organize and become engaged in government.

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"I think we’re in a moment in which young people are not voting both because voters have been intentionally disenfranchised, but also because people don’t see themselves reflected in the party and don’t see the issues that they carry about reflected in the party," Neubauer said.

One way to counter disillusionment among voters, Neubauer said, is to elect organizers and to support outside organizing efforts that push elected officials to listen directly to voters. 

"I truly think democracy is at stake right now," Neubauer said. "The way we get out of that is by digging into these organizing skills … and building political a organization that is strong enough to take on the Koch brothers."

Rep. David Bowen, D-Milwaukee, said Democrats and progressives should be encouraged by the results of recent elections, including voters' overwhelming rejection of a Walker-backed effort to eliminate the office of the state treasurer.

Going forward, Bowen said, groups on the left need to keep up excitement and momentum among voters — moving past older models that treated voter outreach as more of a "transactional" effort. 

NextGen will fund similar programs in California, Nevada, Arizona, Iowa, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Virginia and Florida. Outreach efforts will include in-person organizing, door-to-door conversations, emails and "snail mail," Steyer said. 

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Jessie Opoien covers state government and politics for the Capital Times. She joined the Cap Times in 2013 and has also covered Madison life, race relations, culture and music. She has also covered education and politics for the Oshkosh Northwestern.